RDGenerations: Religion in the Academy

Lucia Hulsether is a freshman at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. A while back, she got in touch with RD to see if we were interested in having someone on the ground, covering the college beat. We were, absolutely. She mentioned that she talked a lot to her father Mark, a religion prof, about religious studies (her intended major), and about politics, and about teaching. The chance to listen in on father-daughter religion talk struck us here at RD as a unique opportunity. In this first installment of what we hope will be an ongoing feature, Lucia and her father Mark talk about what it's like to study and teach religion in the Bible belt, about referring to God as "She," and about the theory that Obama may be the antichrist—we are so glad they have agreed to share their correspondence with us. –The Eds


LH: Hey Dad, I think I’m about to declare my Religious Studies major. I “verbally” declared it to the department a long time ago—but it still seems daunting to make it official. What do you think?

MH: You’ve taken quite a few Religious Studies courses, and you’ve watched me teach for years, so you have some idea what you’re getting yourself into. How do you see the pros and cons?

LH: Yeah, I’ve taken five classes. My favorites were "Gender in US Religion," "Religion and Immigration," and "The Bible and Human Rights." I love the field and can’t see myself in any other place. We have a fantastic department, with interesting classes, engaging professors, motivated students, and a strong overall community. But I also think that scholarship in religion can branch to many fields—social justice activism, ministry, public policy, journalism, and so on.

You know the cons as well as I do. I am so tired of people asking me what I am going to “do” with a Religious Studies major! When people learn my major, they assume that I only study the Bible—and probably the King James Version with no critical analysis. Even at Agnes Scott there is a version of this idea—some students try to study religion through only one lens because they think their tradition is normative. They seem to think that applying rigorous scholarship to religion makes it less sacred. It can create a frustrating dynamic in class discussions.

MH: That does come with the territory.

LH: So, how does one teach on US Religion (or any course in religion) in the South? In my experience—and based on stories you have told me, maybe even more-so at the University of Tennessee—classes include quite a few conservative evangelicals who take very particular, even rigid, stances toward the subject. I imagine that it’s a bigger factor in the Bible Belt than in most other places. How do you deal with this? For example, my New Testament class heard a student presentation on “Eschatology and the Kingdom of God….”

MH: Will RD readers know what this means? It seems a bit jargony.

LH: OK, then, “Biblical teachings about the end of time.” Anyway, the students divided their project into sections on "Past," "Present," and "Future." The first two sections were an overview of orthodox Christian teachings. Then in the "Future" section, the student stood up and began to spout proof-texts from Revelation that she presented as literal prophecies of upcoming events. I wondered if we would ever get to discussion because she was on such a roll with her Bible-quoting, but all of a sudden she switched gears and dropped this bombshell: "In relation to the Kingdom of God, where will YOU spend eternity?” This was written on her PowerPoint. How was I supposed to react?

MH: Sometimes students want professors to shut down presentations like this, but professors often need to play the role of “neutral” referee in a way that students don’t. So if you want to call out this sort of student, I encourage you to go for it. Professors want to hear from their better students!

LH: But I still think that there is a zero-sum conflict; which students are the teachers keeping happy? Is it even possible to satisfy students like the one I mentioned and also challenge those of us who are more interested in critical and comparative analysis?

MH: I agree, there is some zero-sum conflict. We should talk sometime about its institutional aspects.

LH: How have you handled it?

MH: I don't teach Bible classes, so the closest I come to the example you posed is in my class on conflicts between the religious right and left since World War II. Since many of these conflicts involve the Bible, I give students a set of Bible passages—a sort of “greatest hits” package—and ask them to write down what these passages say about (1) relations between women and men, (2) slavery, and (3) relations among Christians, Jews, and others. I choose texts with clear conflicts on these issues. My point is to dramatize how the Bible documents running debates, and that an honest reader has to grant that there are at least tensions, if not outright contradictions, inside the texts. Often we wind up discussing whether there are underlying principles that hold true across these “tensions,” as opposed to conflicts that go “all the way down.” And we have to discuss both whether non-Christian students should even care, and whether dispensationalist interpretive schemes can make the conflicts disappear.

LH: Now who is using jargon?

MH: True enough. “Dispensationalism” is the theory that history from Genesis to Armageddon is divided into stages, or dispensations. People build on this idea to claim that all Bible texts are literally true at the same time—we just need to sort them into the right eras. Of course this strategy doesn’t hold up; people wind up ignoring inconvenient passages and fighting about conflicting dispensationalist systems. And my class doesn’t work through these complexities because it could take all semester. I simply pose these things as questions for students to work out for themselves—and recommend that they think historically about the texts as part of an open-ended debate.

The key point is that students bring conceptual grids and impose them on the material. And you’re right, evangelical grids are deep-rooted; it’s amazing to see how many students can’t even see the conflicts in my exercise. My students are more likely to shut down and refuse to engage in discussion than to proselytize—but that’s probably worse than getting the conflicts out on the table.

So, how do I handle conflicts like those you described? My main strategy is to ensure that I always have at least two arguments in play, so that I can steer the discussion toward comparing them. If a student proposes an apocalyptic reading of prophecy, we can focus on how this contrasts with a liberal reading or a vision of the future from another tradition. One of my favorite strategies is "comparative dispensationalism"—noticing how “Anti-Christs of choice” shift with the times, from Popes, to Hitler, to Stalin, to Kennedy, to Ahmadinejad. By the way, a student recently asked me if I had heard speculation that the rise of Barack Obama is part of end-time scenarios. Have you heard such a thing? What would happen if someone in your class hinted at it?

LH: No, I have not heard anything like this! The students I've met—including many evangelicals—are overwhelmingly pro-Obama.

MH: For people steeped in books like the Left Behind series, it’s not surprising. I just used Google to search for “Obama Anti-Christ” and turned up quite a bit. Glen Beck even asked John Hagee about it on CNN.

LH: Let’s come back to this after we finish talking about classroom dynamics. Your “greatest hits" Bible assignment reminds me of exercises we did in New Testament class to clarify differences in students’ religious traditions and interpretive styles. These reflections helped us articulate our positions, but they also intensified preexisting divides within the class. Alternatively, by putting the issues out on the table, we set ourselves up for sharper disagreement. Often I noticed a “split-level” dialogue according to students’ cultural backgrounds and experience in Religious Studies. For example, my Human Rights class read an essay that casually referred to God as "She.” The article had little to do with feminist theology; it actually was about the prison-industrial complex. But most of my classmates wanted to spend the two-hour period (and, as it turned out, subsequent class periods) wrapping their heads around the concept of using feminine pronouns for God—which they claimed they had never heard before. Meanwhile, I have grown up with feminist theologies—and am in fact very uncomfortable saying “He,” “King,” and “Lord.”

MH: But saying “Father” is cool, right—because you have such a great one? I’m joking, but “Father” and “Lord” do seem slightly different on this front, just like “Mother” and “Queen” would.

LH: Maybe—although it depends on who is using this language, in what context. But don’t change the subject. In my class, both groups of students had very specific—and totally valid—needs, but they almost seemed mutually exclusive. Students generally addressed classmates who shared their reaction, even though it was supposed to be a full-class discussion. I am sure that this type of division occurs across academic disciplines, but I would guess that the problem is especially apparent in Religious Studies because of the deep-seated commitments that people bring to the table. And it’s not limited to academic settings—it’s an issue in public discourse as well. For example, the issue of Obama as Antichrist…

MH: Yes, this problem goes deep into the challenge of teaching on religion. But whether or not a given class includes people who worry about Obama’s place in prophecy, this is just one example of a huge phenomenon in our culture. In my book, I use the example of a quarter of the population telling pollsters that the attacks of 9/11 were predicted in the Bible. Any support for the United Nations is suspect—Pat Robertson even wrote that George H.W. Bush was part of “an occult-inspired world socialist dictatorship” because he worked with the UN during the first Gulf War. It’s almost a cliché to mock Robertson and Falwell for saying that gays and secularists helped caused 9/11, but the background logic they used is pervasive. I suppose that when Franklin Graham preached at the University of Tennessee last month, a milder version of this was in play. So, I assume that some my students are at least half-tempted by this discourse. It can be a headache when deep interpretive conflicts come up. But that’s the world we live in; sometimes we can use a classroom like a laboratory to explore them.

LH: Exactly—your last point hits the core of my reasoning for studying religion. If nothing else, I can come up with sociological questions in class and think about how religious commitments affect the lives of my classmates. Because isn’t that the point of Religious Studies? This probably sounds cliché, but I really believe that we can begin to understand people, culture, and current events by appreciating the values and practices that give them meaning.

MH: Does everyone you’ve met understand Religious Studies this way? If so, you’re lucky and it won’t last. However, a lot of people think this is the point of studying religion, that’s certainly true. I’m glad you want to join us.